A Sankofa Moment

I think when I look back on it, the one thing that was consistent is the fact that, even from a young age, I was always exposed to Black history and culture.

Kiara Hill

I had the pleasure of TAing for Dr. Kiara Hill during Fall term for the History of Art + Social Practice course. I took this class during my first year as a graduate student but thought it would be beneficial for my practice to “retake” the course through the canon of the Black Arts Movement. Throughout the term, I was able to pick Kiara’s brain and understand the ways in which she approaches her pedagogical frameworks and practice. We often spoke about academia and various paths within the institution. During one of our initial conversations, before the term began, we talked a bit about each other’s journey and how we arrived at where we are today. I’ve toyed with the idea of pursuing a similar path of Kiara’s, acquiring a PhD, but wasn’t entirely too sure about my decision. Kiara offered to share further with me her experience and journey which provided additional insight for a path forward.

Kiara: I’m excited to get into our conversation. Can you describe your practice and talk about your journey getting to where you are today?

Kiara H: Hmm. It’s funny that you say practice because I don’t think of myself as an artist, but I do kind of have a practice in which I approach the work that I do. I would say that my practice is one that is centered in Black feminism that centers and prioritizes the lived experiences of Black fems, Black women and Black girls. From a historical perspective and a more contemporary perspective I would say that 99% of the things that I take on and do are along those lines. I think probably second to that, given my background is very much so Black-centered which is in part informed by my formal training, but also just by experiential knowledge, just lived experiences. I would describe my practice as one rooted in Black feminism, something that’s fluid and seeks to capture the most holistic interpretation of those experiences as possible.

Kiara: Yes, that’s beautiful. Do you feel you’ve always wanted to explore that within your practice or do you feel within your undergrad experience you felt more of a calling to lean more into this research? Or has it always been an interest of yours?

Kiara H.: The short answer is no. I think a lot of 18-year-olds went through a lot of different things before. I mean, not to say 18, but college age, whatever that looks like, went through a lot of different phases and ideas. When I look back on it, the one thing that was consistent is the fact that, even from a young age, I was always exposed to Black history and culture. And in fact it was often my default. I went to a Black Baptist, kind of pan-African style elementary school where, in addition to obviously learning the basics of math, science, that kind of curriculum; it was often interspersed with these, I don’t know, I call ’em pep talks, looking back at it, just the idea that to be a Black child in America means it comes with a certain kind of  baggage. But not one that you need to let hinder you as much as one that you just need to be aware of. Even outside of that, when I think about the history and stuff that I learned, it was predominantly African-American history. Black history month was a whole thing. We came in African regalia or what we understood to be that and I had pig feet for the first time at eight years old because of school. It was very foundational to my understanding of myself, but also how I understood African-American history. I think coupled with the fact that my godmother, who has always been very influential in my life, has always been very Afrocentric pro-Black, even down to how she styles her house. She’s always been a collector, at least for my entire life, of 20th century African-American memorabilia. My experience and exposure with various facets of African-American culture came very early on. 

So fast forward, although I didn’t know that’s what I was going to do right off the bat, when I look at it, I can see, oh, this has kind of been an ongoing theme in my life. To be honest, I was a pretty shitty undergraduate student. I tell people that all the time actually, and not in a way denigrate myself as much as to say that, you just really never know where life will take you. Not in a cliche way, but in a way where it’s … I think when people see people with PhDs, they think you must have always thought you were gonna be a PhD. And it’s actually like no. I think for a lot of us, we just come at this in very different ways, which I think is the beauty of getting a PhD in humanities. But all that to say, yeah, I didn’t really know. I think what changed for me was in undergrad I had (and this is why representation is important) a Black woman professor who basically told me you’re really smart, but you are a knucklehead, so we need to figure out a way for you to get this on track because you have potential to do some things that I don’t think you even see for yourself right now. I am forever indebted to her for that because she’s right. No one in my family had gotten a graduate degree. No one talked about that. The idea was, oh, you get a state job. There’s nothing wrong with state jobs, but I just didn’t have a lot of exposure to what was available as far as education goes, past getting a bachelor’s degree. When this professor said that to me, she also mentioned, we’re going to get you into the McNair Scholars program, which is a program designed to help marginalized people, folks from underrepresented backgrounds, economically and racially, into graduate programs. Because as we know, when we look at the numbers, people of color in marginalized communities are still very underrepresented. The idea of getting a graduate degree with the hopes of becoming a professor was big but I trusted her. It’s crazy because I remember while interviewing for the program my GPA was barely a 2.8 which was the bare minimum to get accepted. I remember telling them in my interview, listen, if you let me in the program, I can do it. I promise I can do it. I know my transcript doesn’t reflect that but I can do it.  

They accepted me into the program. Shortly thereafter, I believe having been exposed to research and to the fact that I could conduct research on what matters in terms of my personal interest and that of my community, I felt okay. Around that same time, the California budget crisis occurred which affected the CSU systems. I originally planned to acquire my bachelors degree in public relations but due to budget cuts I was unable to take the classes I needed to confer my degree. The only way for me to fulfill my requirements was to take up a minor. Looking back, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then I stumbled upon women’s studies and that totally transformed my life because for the first time I had been given the language to talk about my experiences and the experiences of women around me. I felt I always had an internal knowledge of this language, but being able to participate in discourse around the systemic and historical reasons for those things, I believe, shifted me into a completely different world. At that point I said to myself, okay, I’m going to do school. I can do this. This is interesting to me

After this realization, I began learning about Black feminism and I was mind blown. It completely shifted my views of myself, politics, and how I saw my Blackness in relation to my womanness. It was really just an eye-opening experience. From there, I was accepted into the University of Alabama’s race and gender studies program. Shortly thereafter, I told myself, okay, if I can get into graduate school, I’m going to take school seriously. I was accepted and that was what it was. While attending the program, I really started to lean heavily into learning about feminism more so specifically the development of Black feminism and learning about different frameworks in relation to feminist frameworks all while participating in different political causes. For a short time, I worked with a reproductive justice organization that escorted women to get abortions. In the midst of pro-lifers harassing them, I found this experience to be most interesting because I was witnessing this first hand. The organization was in Alabama, where not that long before, abortion clinics were being bombed. Unlike my experience in California, when I worked with these types of organizations, it was a completely different social landscape. It was interesting because while helping out one day, Saturday, I’d usually see mostly white people, i.e white men, women and sometimes with their kids but that day I saw a Black man. I was perplexed because I kept asking myself, what is he doing over there? He was Black and gay, and I was just wondering what do you have in common with these people? I remember at one point, my colleagues and I went back and forth with the crowd… saying things. The Black guy was the loudest. It was wild. I thought to myself, what the hell is going on? I got his attention and I talked to him one-on-one. I was trying to figure out what he was doing there, why he was there, where all this came from. When we arrived at the end of our conversation, I don’t actually believe he shared the same political views with these people, he really was seeking some kind of acceptance. 

There were moments, like these, that led me to decide to become more proficient in talking about race, gender and class and overall societal issues while also wanting to connect with people. Those are the moments that helped guide me into pursuing and acquiring my PhD and ultimately becoming a professor. The art stuff didn’t come until a little bit later on when I got to Massachusetts. It’s funny… I’m fascinated by the ways people narrate their lives, which is in part, why I do what I do. I’ve never heard myself out loud… out loud, do the same thing. So right now, I’m hoping I don’t sound like a Disney movie. 

Kiara: It’s very inspirational and really interesting. I’m engaged, I want to hear more. 

Kiara H.: When I was in my PhD program, I had my first real introduction to art. Before that, I had known people, like my mother and godmother, who collected a few prints here and there. I knew Black people created art, but it’s not like I had ever gone on a field trip to a museum and was explicitly told this work was created by a Black artist or this work speaks to me as an individual and person in particular ways. I thought I just didn’t really like art that much. In 2016 or 17, UMCA, which is the contemporary museum on campus, opened up their annual curatorial fellowship. This particular year they decided to open it up to people outside of art history and studio art because they were focusing on African art. This was actually the first time they were going to curate an exhibition focused on African art since the 1970s. There was a lot of pressure about the exhibition because as a predominantly white institution, the question becomes, are they going to do a good job in representation? So I believe that’s why they decided to open it up to more people. I applied and while interviewing they asked me if I was interested in working with them on this and a Kara Walker show that’s coming up next semester. They said we would really love it, especially with my background and ability to develop educational materials. That’s how I made my entrance into the museum, as both a curator and educator. The fact that it was a small institution meant I was heavily involved in the curation process, which was amazing. The show turned out really good and was well received. Although, there was some skepticism about the collector, but that was a whole nother thing. But overall, I believe the intent around the ways in which the work was displayed was well received by the community. So curating this show in addition to the Kara Walker show made me realize that I can have conversations about race, gender, and Black culture outside of the classroom. In fact, people are actually a bit more open to engage because they feel they’re doing so through art, as opposed to when you’re in the classroom.  

People can be apprehensive about wanting to offend people, which means that they won’t ask certain questions or won’t say certain things, even if it means that they would get clarity around it. There was something about that museum experience, where I thought to myself, this can’t just be a one-off experience. I need to continue on this path. I hit the ground running … learning as much as I can about African-American art. I looked through catalogs … lots of catalogs. I also remember coming to the realization that I want to talk about the Black arts movement, more specifically Black women artists. I worked for my advisor, who is one of the most profound thinkers of the Black arts movement with his focus being on literature. I had to do a lot of digging on my own with visual art research. With that said, I have an interesting trajectory and now that I’ve arrived at this place, I’ve read and learned so much more about Black art and I’ve fallen in love with it while simultaneously trying to get as much curatorial experience as possible. There was a time where I thought not having an art history degree behind me was going to hinder me. But looking back, that was definitely not the case. In fact, I think because I have a background outside of art history that I’m able to bring the perspective around both curating, writing and teaching.

Kiara: Do you see any overlaps between your fields of study with art history, African-American, and women’s studies?

Kiara H.: They’ve come together to inform one another through my formal background in African-American studies which also means the way in which I approach African-American art is different than how art historians approach it. As someone who sees themselves as a storyteller and as a steward of Black culture, I have an investment in presenting holistic experiences of not only the work but also the artist. I don’t think I knew it at the beginning or in the middle or, honestly, in the PhD program at the beginning, but I’m now seeing everything come together to help me become the scholar, curator, community arts activist person I am today.

Kiara: That’s amazing. I was really excited that you were interested in talking with me for the winter term SoFA interview because I’ve been interested in asking you questions about your journey because as a Black artist myself and who is also making their way through academia, a clear path isn’t always presented which makes it difficult to know which direction to go. There are different options that are presented, but you don’t always have the discernment to know which one to take at that moment. It sounds like experiences and interactions informed a great portion of your journey, for example, the professor you studied under in your undergraduate program really spoke into your future and saw your potential. Also, the experience you mentioned with the Black man at the protest that prompted you to pursue the language and/or history to further engage in these types of conversations. That’s very inspiring because it makes me think that the path doesn’t have to be clear to do what you want to do and it’s okay to look at inspirations from other experiences that you have in life to inform your direction that you want to go in. It’s also okay to not have it figured out already in the present day, it’s a journey and the explanation or the reasoning does eventually come to you over time. That’s the beauty of the journey because you’re not tied to a particular outcome or end. It sounds like you’re very open to the possibilities of the form that your practice can take.  It doesn’t have to be written in stone, if that makes sense. It seems more flexible in that way. Do you approach your curating in that way as well? What questions or themes do you explore when curating a show? How would you describe your process?

Kiara H.: Well, I will say one more thing regarding the journey. I’ve always led with H-E-A-R-T work and not hard work. By that, I mean I really care about the work I do. There will be times in life where we have to do things that we don’t really want to do or are not that are stimulating. But one of the things I’ve tried to do is to really create a practice of doing things that challenge me, but also things that matter to me … Things that  resonate with me. I’m a BIG legacy person, doing things I could do to help people coming behind me and sometimes that looks like teaching and giving advice, sometimes that looks like creating certain research projects so that the person 10 years from now who wants to research on the same thing doesn’t have to do the leg work that I had to do when there was nothing there. I’ve been dedicated to doing what’s important to me and being unapologetic about it. Like I’ve said, centering Black women, Black fems, Black girls, has really allowed me to give myself to this in all of its fullness. Something that informs this is the fact I was raised predominantly by a village of women. Black women of different shades, backgrounds and experiences.One of the things I’ve realized growing up and I think it became even more clear as I got older is that, even though I see these women as complex, phenomenal, and at times scarred and nuanced and just worthy of attention, that society does hold the same perception of Black woman as I do. That’s something that has also fueled me. 

These thoughts fuel the questions I’m exploring within my work. When I say holistic, I mean that I hope when people either experience exhibitions that I’ve curated or read my texts, they’re able to see the full humanity of the individuals I’m referencing. Yes, they were artists, activists, but also friends with families and who had obligations outside of their work. They were people who had good and bad days. When we talk about Black historical figures, there’s a tendency to immortalize them and in god-like ways. I’ve always been fascinated with the everyday, ordinary, because those are the moments that have shaped my life. Those are the moments that I remember most. The subtlety of my moms laugh or the grease that my auntie uses on Sundays… Those are the threads that I try to pull out.

Kiara: I think you’re making a lot of people proud for sure. The way in which you talk about your work and commitment to humanizing Black women, is an act within itself. I believe especially within the art world, it’s not very inclusive. You don’t see a large number of Black curators. I can probably count how many Black curators I know of on my hand and I wish that wasn’t the case. Although, I do believe there is a cultural shift happening within the art world, even though it’s a gradual shift.  It’s still a shift happening because there are a lot of resources being allocated to diversify from the inside out. The majority of society’s culture and history starts within museums because it’s a time capsule for history. If we’re able to enter into the institution and change the inner workings from the status quo, then we’ll begin to see a shift that is occurring not only within this space but also within society.  

Kiara H.: I agree with that completely and timing also is everything. If I graduated from my PhD program 10 years ago, I don’t know if I would’ve been afforded the same opportunities. But like you said, it seems to be a cultural shift. Especially within institutions, it’s not in good taste if you don’t have at least one Black person on staff to offer a different perspective. 

Kiara: That’s very important, especially when you’re talking about working with Black artists. Earlier you mentioned that you were worried that not having an art history degree would hinder you but in fact it benefited you because you were able to provide a fresh perspective. And within that perspective was your lived experiences as a Black woman. I really appreciate that because I can sense the openness of your lived experience within a community or within your own identity as a way to talk about something or be able to do something. The term “epistemology” comes to mind. The communal and/or oral histories within that realm. I feel there is more appreciation of this theology. I believe that’s how it should be because there are so many people within our community that are researchers and practitioners, maybe not in a formal way but they are considered such in their own right.

Kiara H.: That’s why for me, Black feminist epistemology has always been my starting point because it prioritizes lived experience. One of my goals is to try my best to present a multiplicity of subjectivities as opposed to one subjectivity as a stand in for all. Which I think is where my investment in making things complicated and complex really comes from because all of us are complex beings. I think that art is a good vehicle in which I explore those complexities and watch them take form. 

Kiara: Life and people are complicated. When you talk about a holistic representation, what comes to mind for me is teasing through the complicatedness of life and putting a light on people’s active living, in general, outside of their accomplishments or image that has been curated by community or societies.  

Kiara H.: Absolutely. For me, that is where the investment in representation comes in. I think representation is one of the tools we could use to help meet some of these ends, but it’s not the only one. I think it’s about how you approach that idea of representation. I’m not interested in putting forth a monolithic Black narrative of anything. I’m interested in presenting multiple subjectivities and to “tease out”, how you were saying, those human experiences. I’m also not invested in respectability politics. I think in the 21st century, it is crucial for Black folks to see their identities as all encompassing and not as one thing which in turn will allow us to see and understand each other. 

Kiara: I definitely agree that holistic representation within the Black community is something that’s very much necessary because we have not had that. I’d like to believe we are on the cusp of this, or at least that’s how I’m feeling right now. I really enjoyed talking with you and learning more about your journey. It’s very inspiring. I appreciate your time, energy and your experience. I’m sure people are going to enjoy reading more about your experience in SoFA Journal. Thank you Kiara.

Kiara H.: Thank you, Kiara. We’ll get together soon.

Kiara Walls (she/her) is a multi-disciplinary arts educator and social practice artist, originally from LA but now stationed in Portland, Oregon. She received her B.A. in Graphic Design from California State University- Northridge. As a practicing artist, Kiara aims to forge connections between her practice and that of her surrounding communities. This work is manifested through a lens of reparation resulting in site-specific installations, visual storytelling, conflict resolution, and conversations. http://psusocialpractice.org/kiara-walls/

Kiara Hill (she/her) earned her B.A. at Sacramento State University, her M.A. at the University of Alabama, and recently completed her PhD. in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Her research interests include the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with an emphasis on Black women visual artists, Black Feminist Art, and Black Contemporary Art. Kiara is also a curator of Black visual art.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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